City Council considers possibilities for a downtown business association

Staff writer

At Monday’s City Council work session, the board considered the future of downtown Williamsburg as it heard a presentation on spurring economic vitality through the Virginia Main Street program.

The Main Street model was developed by the National Trust for Historical Preservation 40 years ago, but was introduced in Virginia by the state Department of Housing and Community Development in 1985.

The program aims to revitalize historic commercial districts in localities across the state by fostering collaboration between local merchants and accentuating their unique characteristics, program manager and state coordinator Rebecca Rowe said.

“At its most basic, Main Street is considered economic development through historic preservation, although as we get further into the 21st century practice of Main Street, we have also started saying that this is economic development through unique place-based assets, so it looks a little different in every community,” she said.

Rowe said the Main Street model is unique because it encourages community members and local store and restaurant owners to develop their own revitalization strategies, rather than prescribing a set, uniform action plan.

“As opposed to this being a function of the municipal government or the chamber, where decisions happen top-down, with Main Street, we really have a strong emphasis on community engagement and stakeholder engagement so that the work plan is coming from the ground-up,” she said.

The Virginia Main Street program has three tiers of membership, Rowe said. By passing a resolution and filling out an application, she said Williamsburg could join over 90 other Virginia municipalities as a commercial district affiliate community, with access to training courses and grants from the state Department of Housing and Community Development.

To become a designated Main Street community, she said the city would need to hire a full-time staff member dedicated to overseeing the downtown business association and enter a competitive application process.

“Commercial district affiliate status is a non-competitive one-page application letting us know what you want to get out of the Main Street program and how you want to work with Virginia Main Street,” she said.

The city’s Economic Development Authority has previously expressed interest in the program as a basis for its proposed downtown business association.

As part of this year’s budget, City Council set aside $150,000 for an action plan developed by the EDA to improve downtown Williamsburg. One of the main pillars of that action plan is the creation of a downtown business association, which would serve as a merchant’s association overseeing all downtown businesses.

“Part of that plan was talking about a way to engage the property owners and the businesses in the vibrancy of the city, because that’s critical,” City Economic Development Director Michele Mixner DeWitt said. “Government certainly plays a role, but having downtown businesses and property owners participate is also important to its success, and we mentioned a downtown business association as a way to get there.”

City Council members were enthusiastic about the potential of the Main Street program. At the meeting, the board authorized the EDA to lead the effort by applying for Main Street affiliate community status.

Vice Mayor Doug Pons said that, by creating an organization led by local stakeholders, programming in downtown Williamsburg could have a stronger appeal to area residents as well as tourists.

“I think we have lost a lot of our identity in the last 60 years,” Pons said. “We have grown as a historic destination and lots of visitors come to experience, but we’ve lost what Williamsburg is to the residents.”

Arriaza can be reached at 757-790-9313 or on Twitter @rodrigoarriaza0.

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